Brixton Years

Growing up with and without a father, Brixton in the 1960`s was full of music, colour, and the street cries of the stall holders. We moved into Electric Avenue in 1965 I am 7 years old.
Figure 1, Electric Avenue in the 1960`s.

Our flat was on the right third window along with a balcony and awning which was later taken away owing to people throwing their rubbish out of the windows of the flats above. The flat was previously rented by an old gentleman called Lou old Lou he was the ghost of the flat whenever anything uncanny occurred mum would say “its old Lou again”. The flat had 2 large bedrooms a living room kitchen bathroom and a small room adjoining the kitchen which served as a bedroom once all the children were born. But to start with it was just me and my mum. Richard was in Hastings with our dad, but it seemed no time at all that we were joined by Jimmy Hewett.

My introduction to him was unfortunate, in that I was promised a Christmas present, and made to close my eyes, when opened there he stood like Frankenstein. I covered up my face and told him to go away I did not want to see him, and he was not a Christmas present. My mother was so thrilled with him that she thought I would be too. Over time I learned to love him, I also learned to hate him. Son of a heavyweight wrestler and so-called coffee stall bully working in the west end as extortionist and driver for one of the then south London gangsters. worked in the construction industry putting in windows, I believe he had dealings in the building of the post office tower.

17 Electric Avenue was my first ever proper address where I lived with my mother and a father figure. It looked like I had a family, Mum stopped going out and drinking every night, and we had a television and a coal fire. We also went on short holidays to the Dungeness coast, my first ever holidays with my mother, she was happy and so was I, but things changed for me once my brother Jack was born in 1967, my father in Hastings died the same year, then two years later my brother James was born in 1969. Electric Mansions, Electric Avenue SW9 my address, and I was a little mother that could hardly see over the top of the pram I pushed everywhere.

Jimmy Hewett could turn from being an angel dad to a violent demon within seconds and changed daily, I knew when he was going to grab me by my neck and run me into walls and downstairs or not by his morning habits. In a good mood I got a cup of tea in bed. On a bad day he tap danced to the radio on the kitchen tiled floor to a song called “walk in the black forest” then I knew I was in trouble, but never knew why. All I knew was that I needed to stay away from him and would be called a cunt and told to go and rot in the grave with my dead father. His anger extended to my mother in the most horrific ways, and she didn’t help herself with her extreme tantrums. This was a regular occurrence in the flat and it left me shaking uncontrollably for days. There were two instances of her getting a most horrific beating from him, thankfully somehow that was something she never remembered in her time with dementia.

The first beating I heard from my bed and thought the sound of whacks was my baby brother hitting a toy, all the while with mummy screaming. She ended up in hospital. The second beating was while she laid across my body in bed and she clung to me while he tore at her dress and thumped down onto her. Another instance where I shook for days especially when I looked at her arm in a sling and her swollen bruised face. I wanted to run away with her and the children to be safe, but she needed him.

Brixton at that time, was alive with the sound of Reggae Dub, a sound that filled the streets and forced all the shoppers to walk in rhythm, I resented this and did my best to walk out of rhythm. Always very aware of how my steps were being placed which made me quite odd-looking jumping from space to space. Hopping and sometimes breaking out into a run, usually on errands for my mother who hated going into shops. Some of the places I visited in Brixton, are gone now, The Astoria cinema a magical palace with Greek statues columns and a starry night sky, a place where the fantasy of film become a luxury.

Figure 4, inside magic.

The Empress with its star on the tip of its spire, a beautiful Victorian theatre where I saw Mr Pastry and his slapstick, and Tommy Steel, and also a showing of the wizard of oz, which changed from black and white to bright vivid colour.

Figure 5, the Empress before my time, but how I remember it.

The pie and mash shop, where we watched the eels being chopped up in the side street out the back of Woolworths, Electric Lane. Woolworths, counters sold heaps of salted warm peanuts and cashews in small greaseproof bags. And mountains of honeycomb light dark and some dipped in chocolate. The smell was always mouth-watering and warm, then you would go onto the street to the sweet smell of the chestnut salesman, glowing with a barrel of hot coals.
Bon Marche, where the haberdashery had rows of pretty ribbons, that you could buy by the yard, and boxes of hairnets studded with pearls. Morley’s department store with its café where models walked a catwalk showing off the latest fashions, my aunty patsy always went there. Lions corner house where you could d get a quick snack from a servery, I always had hot Ribena and toast or upstairs with linen tables and a waitress and menus and the biggest knickerbocker glory in the world which I could never finish my aunty patsy took me there too. The market filled with discarded boxes, papers and vegetables not good enough for the beautiful market displays, one could collect enough for a free dinner from the curb side. I used to break up the wooden boxes and fill a potato sack and sell as kindling for pocket money.

Electric Avenue, my address, a main market street at that time, busy and loud with the shouts of the stall holders, the rattle of passing trains, and the quarter hour chiming of Lambeth town hall. If only I had recorded the sound that is something that can only live in my head, which it does, there was a melody in the repetitive cries of “lovely apples lovely pears” “you can ‘it ‘em wiv an ‘ammer”. For the tomato stall, Julie selling her tomatoes and lemons, she would cut a lemon in half for me to eat to get my vitamins, then magically at Christmas a couple of the stalls changed and sold Christmas decorations, huge multi coloured and balloon pumps, giant elaborate chains of all colours festooned the stall and it shimmered with lametia. Around the corner in Electric Lane a collection of assorted Christmas trees, at one end and the ritual slaughter of eels at the other end, this was to supply the Harringtons Pie and mash shop, and the wonderful ex female wrestler Molly Mintz who sold paper bags on a fly pitch. With her minder Alfie, the story went that Alfie was a grass and had such a beating from some local villains that it left him crippled. Molly came to our home and taught my mother how to make toffee apples, another turning point in my childhood.

We had arcades filled with shops people and smells some more savoury than others, an acquired taste. The Reliance arcade which ran down the side of Woolworths and connected Electric Lane with Brixton Road, the Electric Lane end attracted the fly pitchers (to sell goods on the street without a vendor's licence, usually from a small suitcase, wooden crate, etc., ready to depart hurriedly if the authorities arrive). They sold all sorts, fake perfumes, made in a bathtub in Whitechapel Road, and labelled Channel. jewels and kitchen gadgets, a look out down one end of Electric Lane to alert the salesmen that the cozzas were coming, and the fly men flew the other way with their suitcases packed.

Not far from station road were the tot stalls, second-hand stalls where eventually in the 70`s my mother would take a stall and go into business selling outside John’s café. Prior to that she went into business making toffee apples. Our kitchen and hallway with 4 children in a two bedroomed flat filled with boxes of apples, toffee apples were such an innocent product until you are making a thousand a day for Covent Garden.

I had frequent trips to Smithfield market to replace school education, with the babies, to buy packets of clear film and skewers for the sticks. This was my history lesson the old part of London, St Bartholomew church and the old streets. I knew more about the district line than I did about spelling and grammar. Then once home to work pushing the sticks into the apples. Then late into the night wrapping the toffee apples while my mother cooked her eyeballs with the toffee steam over the very busy cooker. I had frequent trips to Tesco’s buying huge amounts of sugar and red food colouring. Then on a Saturday I would be put into a taxi with 500 of the bloody things to sell in the doorway of a pub in Battersea, Northcote Road, I learned about the cold, it was bitter but at least I did not have Jack and James with me. Then with my £1.50 wages went ice skating in Streatham. One year my pitch was in Hemel Hempstead, sitting on a wall outside the pub opposite my grandads veg stall, I got to market by green line bus and a lift home in my grandad’s lorry.

Mum changed occupations when she met stepfather no.3 a dashing little man named Kenny Miller. He had spent time in prison where he learned to box and had worked as a bullfighter prior to that in Spain. Notorious for bullfighting the traffic on Brixton Road with his overcoat and fighting with the porters in Covent Garden he had an ability to turn into Jack Nicholson in the shining, and torment us by chasing us around the flat with an axe. His finale would be to piss on us.

Mummy would disappear and return with suits; duvet covers and all sorts. And re appear laden with goodies. The occupation was known as hoisting, it came along with a number of superb personalities that have living relatives so I will give them different names, Scotch Pam is one, a larger-than-life woman who came smashing on our front door wanting to kill my mother for no reason other than that Pam was drunk, she was dodgy like that. Fat John who sat my first-born toddler on his lap and told him all about those fucking pigs that couldn’t build a house and that cunt of a wolf that huffed, and fucking puffed.

Mum's next career after the hoister episode was as a poker host in what is known as a spiel. The dining table covered in baize and men usually market workers hoisters and taxi drivers came and played poker all night. The living room filled with smoke and my mum looked after them with drinks and sandwiches while they played huge amounts of money in a pot. It was run on an old model she knew about by one of her boyfriend’s Reggie Issacs and friend Billy Howard who had the Beehive club in Brixton at one time but was at the end of his powers, I remember him drinking in the Albert pub no longer in his beautiful handmade brogue shoes but a pair of slippers which was all he could get on his feet. I liked him he was always very kind to me.

Night time in Electric Avenue was the time for the prostitutes and drunkards. Two prostitutes worked electric avenue and I don’t think they had pimps, one was an older woman very plain dressed in a knitted hat and scruffy long skirt and glasses, she took her men down an alley opposite my bedroom and the other a superb character called Lu Lu who wore a short skirt that popped above her bottom when she bent down to pick up the brolly she purposely dropped. This always attracted many eyes, and I am sure she got her clients, the story went that she was related to Shirley Bassey and came from tiger bay in Wales. She was a loose cannon and that was an effective method of keeping nuisances away from her, I learned this method of defence when as a teenager I walked home from various stay outs in the early hours of the morning. I was also protected by the prostitutes and Buster who pulled the stalls out for the traders in the mornings. The sound of the stalls arriving in the mornings was one of my bedroom sounds, it would start around 4 am one at a time the wheels of the Victorian stalls and the clank of the metal against the road.

Years later Buster was seen on tv, as his lies got the better of him and he was telling everyone he was over 100. Jimmy was dropped on his head as a baby and sat on the stalls and played the accordion for pennies. He terrified me as a child I remember him out with his mother. And the little man that tap danced everywhere, immaculately dressed in a suit and straw hat, his first move was to appear on his doorstep and slide on his tap shoes down his garden path.

Brixton life was not going anywhere for me, I had lost connection with my life in my father’s studio and Hastings, I missed out on my education, apart from ducking and diving with my wild mother, it all seemed a bit dead end and a constant battle with the two small boys who were just as wild and constantly fighting. So, I decided to try and get a place in a college to study something, my main ambition was to go to art school. I got a place at college, so mum lost her child minder and threw me out onto the streets. My time in Electric Avenue had ended.